Six Leadership Lessons From “The Walking Dead”

Zombies aren’t typically my thing, but “The Walking Dead” series has caught my attention. My interest isn’t so much related to the zombies as it is the leadership lessons that are embedded within. That’s right – leadership lessons. A lot can be learned by watching this small group of survivors struggle to prosper in a post-apocalyptic world infested with the living dead.

Here is proof that leaders can find guidance in the least expected places.

  1. Ditch the Script When the gates fail and you are being overrun, as happens in business and during the apocalypse, the rulebook should be thrown out the window. Leaders who are able to break from the script and quickly adapt to changing conditions are those who will survive. Those who stick to the plan no matter what’s happening around them risk being mauled.
  2. You don’t have to have all the answers Just because life as you know it has ceased to exist and you find yourself leading your group in unfamiliar territory, you aren’t expected to have all the answers. When hordes of undead are knocking at your door, effective leadership may call for decisive, top-down authority. But don’t forget that team members on the sidelines may hold key information that will help inform your decisions.
  3. The Stockdale Paradox The people who succumb to the mere thought of the biting and clawing undead always seem to be those who either lose all hope and quit or who fail to realize their dire situation. The Stockdale Paradox proposes that leaders must ensure that their teams are honest with themselves about the reality of their situation while always keeping hope that things will improve. Those who don’t keep a balance between the two are much more apt to lose their focus and become lunch.
  4. North Star Having a guiding “north star” provides clarity and creates a collective direction. Supporting the Stockdale Paradox, leaders need to articulate a vision for the future that inspires people to weather the storm. This becomes especially critical when the going gets rough and people are called to task in ways that push them to their limits.
  5. Empower your people Micromanaging doesn’t work in the office, and it certainly doesn’t get you very far during a zombie attack. Empowerment involves people making some mistakes, but that’s a great way for them to learn. Authoritarian and hierarchical structures enable dependence and mindless followership rather than creativity and proactive behavior. The worst you can do as a leader, in most cases, is to breed a team of zombies.
  6. Stick together It happens in every time. The person who splits from the group inevitably ends up stumbling around with a glazed look destined to become a future threat. When the odds are against you, working together becomes especially critical. One reason team members split off from the group is that they are misaligned in terms of who the real “enemy” is. As leaders, we must keep the group together and focused in the direction of that North Star. Misalignment can be disastrous in a business context in terms of lost productivity and team effectiveness. In “The Walking Dead,” it can mean the difference between life and death.

Though the obstacles we’re facing in our own businesses hopefully don’t match the intensity of “The Walking Dead,” we can certainly take a page out of the book of the brave survivors navigating the ultimate leadership challenge.